If you're lucky enough to find yourself walking around with Wesley Verhoeve, there's a good chance you'll run into someone he knows. He's a blend of magnetic and memorable that invites conversation and makes for the foundation of lasting friendships. You'll hear a cry from across the street and meet someone who remembers him from his band, or who met him a few months back while they were walking a dog in New Orleans, or who asks him if he's that guy from the cover of the New Yorker.
It's a bit ironic that he's the center of so much attention, seeing as the bulk of his career has been focused on shining the spotlight on others. We sat down in his apartment not too long ago to discuss that journey, which has ranged from running a record label, to starting a company centered upon limited-edition accessories, to his most recent project, One of Many, a portrait and writing series exploring twelve smaller cities and the creative individuals who call them home.
"In a way, all of those things are kind of the same thing, which I didn't realize as I was going from one to the other," he begins. "In essence, whether it's the music company, or GNTLMN, or One of Many, or even curating art for WeTransfer—all of that essentially is: I come upon a very talented person, I get excited about them, and then I want to help shape and share their story. I want to tell their story in such a way that will reach a lot of people and, through that audience, help that person. It's all in service of that person that I come across. It's me getting excited about interesting, kind, creative people and applying my skill set to try to best present them to the world."
When asked about his choice to feature less-heralded cities for One of Many, his answer is immediate. "Well it's just more interesting, isn't it? I mean, why would I tell New York people's stories again after everybody else has? I'm much more curious about what's going on in Charleston or Denver. I'm much more interested in the stories that have been told less often. The story of the cool creative in New York, or the tech guy in San Francisco, or the movie/TV person in LA—we know those stories. So, I think it's more interesting to go try to find those other people in other cities."
And find them he has. "I've been very pleasantly surprised by how open and welcoming and kind and proud these communities have been. People are excited to talk about their community, their city. They're proud of it. People have taken me back to their house and cooked dinner for me. Very kind and welcoming. Not that I thought people were going to be the opposite of that but I certainly didn’t expect this degree of kindness, warmth, and openness."
Of course, the connections he's forged aren't limited to his subjects; he's gotten some wonderful feedback from readers as well. "I get a lot of emails from people who will say, 'Really enjoyed the Nashville one and I feel very inspired. I'm going to Nashville in three weeks and I'm going to check out some of these people in person.' One couple from Seattle even ended up moving to Charleston. They were wondering where they were going to move and they were considering Portland and New York, but after reading the Charleston essay, they added it to the list, visited, and decided on moving there.
"It's been a great way to come across like-minded people and form a relationship with them. It wasn't the reason I set out to do this, but it's definitely been a pleasant side effect."
Here's what he brought to show us:
THE STANDBY – TOPO DESIGNS BACKPACK
"Topo is an outdoors apparel and bag company in Denver. I bought it when I photographed them for One of Many. I was interviewing and shooting Koan Goedman of Huckleberry Roasters and he suggested that I’d walk around the corner to see about Topo as well. I went over there and I interviewed Jules from marketing, and Josh, who runs the store, and ended up loving their backpacks so much I bought one after we were done.
"It's an urban backpack. Less suitable for serious outdoor hikes, but great for me to travel with to shoots or my office. It’s stylish, simple, and functional, with a compartment for a laptop. There's nothing extra about it. It's a little bit dirty now, but that's because I've been using it every day."
THE SPECIALIST – SIGMA 35MM F/1.4 DG HSM LENS
"I used to shoot with a Canon 35mm f/1.4, which is a very well known lens and considered to be quite excellent. I was renting that lens because it was very expensive. I couldn't afford to buy it. Traditionally, Canon lenses were considered the best lenses because they're really high quality glass. Sigma was always the cheaper cousin; totally solid but not amazing.
“This particular lens came out not that long ago and it got rave reviews. When I was talking to the guy at Adorama, he said that he'd tried it and it was actually better, yet also five or six-hundred dollars cheaper. So all of a sudden, instead of a fifteen-hundred dollar lens, this is an eight or nine-hundred dollar lens, which, after I saved up some money, I was able to purchase. Long story short: It's a great lens. It's better than the Canon in my opinion. It's really crisp and clean. It doesn't have any distortion really, for a relatively wide angle. It just works. It's a workhorse.
"I don't think people would consider it a portrait lens, traditionally speaking, because you would go for something more like a 50mm or an 85mm. Those are considered, for sure, portrait lenses. The 50mm is very small. If I took a picture of you with a 50mm, I have a lot of face and not a lot of everything else. Because I'm capturing communities, I wanted to have some more stuff around that you could see. So, If I'm at a workshop and it's a woodworker, you can see tools and a bench and his or her work. Whereas with a 50mm, you're going to see the person's face and a bunch of blurry stuff, which is beautiful but not what I was going for with this project. This is a little bit more perfect for environmental portraits, if you will. If you want to take pictures with a lot in them and you can see all of the things, this is great.
"The other thing about the 35mm is: I'm traveling by myself with a backpack and no assistant, walking eight, nine hours a day from one shoot to another, so I can only bring so many things. If I had a car, I could bring a bunch of lenses, but in this case, I want to be able to walk everywhere and not break my back, so that means I bring one lens. This lens."
THE SENTIMENTAL FAVORITE – NOBLIA WRISTWATCH
"The watch is my grandfather's. It's from the fifties. It's from Russia. It's not any kind of a fancy brand. It's purely sentimental. I never wore a watch as a young person because at the time, the watch fashion was very bulky and I have pretty small wrists and so it looks kind of clunky in my opinion. When I was around twenty-eight years old, I decided that it was time to wear a watch. I asked my mother if there might be a family watch around, and she sent me pictures of two watches that had belonged to her father.
"My grandpa was a career military officer, so he wore watches all the time. He fought in World War II, and afterwards remained in the Army, making it to the rank of Sergeant Major.
"Anyway, they had two watches in the safety deposit and this is the one that I liked very much right away. Plus, it's much more—it's more petite, really, than a lot of watches. That's what I was looking for anyway. So my mom sent it to me, including the band, and I started wearing it. I get a lot of compliments on it.
"Actually, I forgot about this part: This watch is very summery and nautical in style. I started wearing it in summer, got used to it, and then once it became fall and winter and I realized it didn’t really suit those seasons as much. I did some research on the brand and because it's not a particularly valuable, expensive, fancy brand, I was able to very affordably pick up another one with a different look.
"And then I—obviously because this is what I do; I make everything into a project and get obsessive about things—all of a sudden, I went a bit overboard and started buying up the prettiest ones I could find with the idea of selling them to friends who loved mine. Once I had collected fifty of them, which took me three years, I put up a landing page for GNTLMN, which was originally going to be watch-oriented. I ended up not launching with the watches. I started with bags and other items first, but the watch is really how that project got started.
"When I asked my mom originally if there was a family watch, I'm sure it was a combination of 'Well, I sure can't afford to buy one' plus I'm also curious and sentimental so let's see if there happens to be one. If there wouldn't have been one, I would have probably just gotten a cheap Timex and that would have been it.
"But, in this case, it worked out."